24-May-2005 -- Those of us in the geography profession teach that boundaries between physical regions on the landscape are seldom really "boundaries." Rather, landscapes typically change over the course of a few to many kilometers, blending into rather than sharply changing to a different physical region. The confluence of 41 North 97 West lies on the boundary of the Great Plains, which run west to the Rocky Mountains, and the rolling hills, which run east to the flat lowlands of Illinois. It came as a surprise, however, to discover that this confluence was truly on the actual boundary between these two important regions, and that the boundary is quite well defined. My first indication that this might be the case came on the previous day. While flying into Lincoln, I saw quite clearly near 97 West the flat plains giving way to the rolling hills, where trees were more frequent, particularly in the gullies. On 24 May 2005, when I stood on the road just west of the confluence, I could see one more rolling hill to the west, but this was the last one. After that, it was all Great Plains. To be sure, this boundary may not be as famous or spectacular to some as the Continental Divide or the northernmost edge of the taiga forest in Canada or Siberia, but to me, as a geographer, this was quite fascinating indeed.
I was in Lincoln, Nebraska USA for the Nebraska Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Land Information Systems Symposium, and considered a confluence visit to be the perfect complement to this geotechnology event. I drove west on Interstate Highway 80, exiting at a spot featuring an abandoned motel with some buildings shaped like teepees, and a motorcycle shop shaped like a giant conestoga wagon. An excellent opportunity for some cultural geography photographs, but I was in a hurry, as I needed to teach geography at Lincoln East High School in less than 2 hours. I drove north and east along gridded, straight, section-line gravel roads. The last road was in the process of being graded, and I bumped along to the top of a hill. I parked in this conspicuous spot so that the landowner would not think I was doing anything clandestine.
I scooted under a barbed wire fence and walked east down a long slope, GPS showing 750 meters to the confluence. The bottom of this slope was planted with grass for hay. East of here, after another fence, I waved at a man plowing the next field to the east, across a gully. I dropped most of my equipment and brought the GPS and landowner letter with me to meet with him. I must have looked a bit odd, wearing a tie out there in the field. Mark was an amiable fellow, knowledgeable about GPS, and after we talked, I crossed the gully and walked back to my backpack. I re-crossed the gully, which had vertical sides about 6 meters high, posing a bit of a challenge. After another 80 meters through a grassy meadow, I arrived at the confluence.
The confluence lies near the west end of a large grassy field which may have been cultivated in the past. The confluence slopes about 10 degrees to the north and is just north of a large evergreen tree. I could see no water, but several farmhouses were in view. I saw no people after my conversation with the landowner. My thermometer read 85 F (29 C) under clear skies and a moderate breeze. I had been to 41 North several times in Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa, and visited 97 West in Oklahoma and in Texas. I spent only 15 minutes at the confluence in order to meet my deadline, and rapidly hiked back to the rental car. Once there, the road grader asked if I was stalled. I told him why I was there and why I had come to Nebraska. He worked for the Seward County Department of Roads, and was knowledgeable about GIS and GPS.
There is nothing like standing on a boundary between two physical regions, and I wish I could have stayed longer. I drove back to Lincoln via a different route which took me through the small community of Garland, Nebraska. Just north of Garland I drove past an excellent farmhouse, neat as a pin, with beautiful grounds, that I thought would be just about the perfect place to live. I made it to the high school in Lincoln with about 4 minutes to spare, and worked with some extremely bright geography students. They gave me great hope for the future.